Child Safe Tourism

September 27, 2011

Tourists and the child exploitation industry

Bangkok Post, Thailand – 27 September 2011.

Travellers and expats in Thailand know the scene of child poverty well. A six year old girl sitting neatly on a mat, painted in bright red lipstick, with a woman sitting nearby; begging for money. A 12 year old boy selling chewing gum at 11pm in an adult entertainment area. He impresses you with his cheeky smile and English gift of the gab. In sticky moments like these you want to help, as feelings of pity and awkwardness tell you that something isn’t right. You might end up handing over some coins. Whatever you do, you are left with an uncomfortable feeling that you have not really made any difference to help the life of this unfortunate child. Now add another dimension to the thought – what if the next person they approach wants something in return for their 50 baht?

On this occasion of World Tourism Day, I urge you to give a moment to think about what tourism means for our children and how we can keep them safe. Thailand’s tourism industry continues to grow, despite the global economic downturn. In 2010, 16 million visitors were welcomed into the Land of Smiles and the Tourism Authority of Thailand aims to welcome 19.5m more in 2012 to generate a combined revenue of THB 1.2B from international and domestic tourism. Clearly, tourism continues to be a driving force in Thailand and must be managed carefully in terms of social impacts, including for children.

As the travel industry booms, the opportunity for child exploitation has the potential to grow if going unchecked. The Thai Government has collaborated well with international law enforcement over some high profile child sex offenders. Thailand has made some clear strides and progress in the area of child sexual exploitation over the past decade. However cases continue to be identified here and in neighbouring countries. Huge tourist attractions and places such as Pattaya and Phuket, not only pull in travellers but also vulnerable children. As tourism continues to grow rapidly, we cannot allow ourselves to get complacent.

Children and youth living and working on the street are particularly at risk, as they attract the attention of tourists and their dollars better than anyone. How can we make the tourism environment less risky for these children Excellent efforts from Government, NGOs, IGOs and the private sector have improved awareness and corporate social responsibility in the service industry. This is where the role of the individual tourist must be called upon. Child Safe Tourism is a way in which individual travellers can become part of the solution to the problem. We must ensure the tourism environment is made protective and safe for vulnerable children. How do your actions increase or reduce the risk around this child? So what is the role of the tourist?

First and foremost, we need to get children off the street. One way is to reduce the monetary drivers that keep children on the street, or working in risky situations within the peripheries of the tourism industry. It is arguable that giving a begging child or a person begging with a child some money will keep the child on the street. Perhaps it would be best to give a larger donation to a local street child charity instead? For the restaurant that allows the young girl to sell roses in its premises late at night while her guardian waits outside; perhaps it’s time you had a word with the owner. Rather than allowing this type of child exploitation, the restaurant could donate some of its profits or put a collection box for a reputable children’s organization to ensure the children like this can go to school. Better still, restaurants could offer employment opportunities to graduates from vocational schools that train former street youth for the hospitality industry. There are many businesses already doing this. Please support them.

Volunteering with local organisations can be a good idea. However, travellers must be very careful not get caught up in any schemes which make children the tourist attraction. The growth of ‘orphanage tourism’ is a concerning trend. Reputable organisations looking to take on volunteers should, at minimum, have a strict vetting procedure in place and clear and publically available child protection policies which aligns with universal standards. Children have the right to a stable and secure environment, preferably within a family, in which to grow and reach their potential.

Lastly and no less importantly, be aware and educate yourself. Keep tourist police and child protection hotline numbers on your phone. By being vigilant and reporting concerns related to child protection, having conversations about child safety with hotels and restaurants, and choosing tourism services that support child safe interactions, you can easily be part of building a more ethical tourism industry in Thailand. Thailand has so many wonderful experiences to offer travellers and expats; let’s work together make a lasting, positive contribution in return for the future generation with child safe tourism.

Aarti Kapoor – Program Manager, Project Childhood Prevention Pillar.